We're only a month into 2012 and the eShop's offerings this year are already weighted heavily with samurai-themed games. In truth, the two couldn't be more different: whereas UFO Interactive's Samurai Sword Destiny favours the straightforward button-mashing approach, Nintendo's own Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword puts patience and precision at the forefront in a game with surprising depth and longevity.
Taking on the role of the titular Sakura Samurai, you're recruited by Kappa, the master of a pond near an ancient sakura tree, to rescue the kidnapped Princess Cherry Blossom. Doing so involves slicing your way through hordes of bad people and three really big bad people across the map.
Sakura Samurai's combat invites comparisons to Nintendo's Punch-Out!! in the sense that both are based on countering whatever attack that enemies telegraph, but that's really where the similes end: Sakura Samurai takes that seed and grows it into a slightly more elaborate system by incorporating more freedom and on-the-fly tactics than the largely reactionary Punch-Out!!. Battles take place in enclosed areas where bands of enemies are free to move around you and you around them, adding a bit of strategic positioning into the mix. The order in which they attack varies, although if you get close enough to any given foe you can strike before they approach. Enemies start out obvious but gradually increase in complexity, adding fake-out and multi-strike moves. If in a pinch, unleashing a special attack will damage all opponents you manoeuvre in front of.
Crucially, Sakura Samurai's balance feels fun and never cheap; messing up tends to encourage doing better next time. Combat is big on precision and calculation, favouring well-placed deliberate strikes over hack-and-slashing your way through. Blocking attacks or having your own attack blocked dents your sword, subsequently weakening your strikes, so it pays to learn enemy patterns and know when to go on the offensive. For further import on precision, there's a neat timing element to combat: successfully dodging at the right moment earns Precision Points that can be traded for gold in towns, but messing up by getting hit or having your attack blocked resets the tally. Precision Points double as a personal high score of sorts as well, with your highest-sold streak visible in item shops. Considering the value in gold of high Precision Point streaks, it's the fastest way to amass money for buying items and sword upgrades, making timing key to success.
Outside of battle, there's a bit of character building going on. Conquering a battle for the first time rewards half of a sakura petal that goes towards increasing your life bar, and the three towns dotted across the overworld map let you upgrade your sword and indulge in some side games for extra money or items.
There are three areas to the overworld punctuated by boss battles, and slashing your way through the story shouldn't take more than four hours. Once it's over and done with, though, there are still things to do and see to keep the game in rotation: a handful of enemy gauntlets unlock as you progress through the story, and the more serene sakura garden lets you put pedometer steps towards blooming trees once a day. There is a meatier bonus, too: the main game is already challenging, but completing the story once unlocks Expert mode that really lives up to its name. Enemies do double the damage and sakura petals aren't awarded after battles; timing and precision become even more important than before as even the wimpiest foes can wipe out a lazy swordsman.
Sakura Samurai's audio side of things is well covered, with its music hitting the samurai nail square on the head. The stereoscopic 3D is generally pleasant and helpful when judging distance for dodging attacks and projectiles, but the developers surprisingly succumb to very goofy "in your face" 3D from time to time that simply doesn't look very good. Visually it's a stylistic game that can be very pretty in places but feels largely lacking in environment design, and a few of the character models look like holdovers from the N64 era. The bosses look great, though, as does everything sakura-related.
Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword may not be the prettiest game on the eShop but it sure is one of the most challenging, striking a good balance between difficulty and precision. With plenty to do for the willing and done well, Sakura Samurai is rewarding in a way that many games don't aim for and, with a lengthier story mode, could easily pass for a retail game. Not bad for $7.